The Renaissance Man
Chef John McCarthy is the living embodiment of a renaissance man. His professional career includes the roles of lawyer, chef, consultant, and artist.
John McCarthy began his professional life as a lawyer, only to realize his true passion. He decided to attend the French Culinary Institute. Upon graduating from FCI (top of his class), he went to work for Chef Wylie Dufresne at wd~50 in New York City.
John is a certified sommelier and an authority on sake. He has lived and traveled extensively in Asia and is highly accomplished in Asian cuisine.
His first restaurant, The Crimson Sparrow, was a critically acclaimed spot in Hudson, New York. The next restaurant, Oka, was a Manhattan restaurant serving John’s interpretation of Japanese izakaya fare.
The pandemic forced John to delay plans on new concepts. He transitioned to serving as a foodservice consultant and further developing his growing popularity as an abstract artist.
In this interview, John sat down (virtually) with an old friend, the late Chef Barry Yates. It took place in December 2020, during the brutal first year of the pandemic. John shared his thoughts on the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry, and the challenges facing operators in large population centers. He offered us a frank and honest look at the reality of the industry in the midst of a crisis
Interview at a Glance
[Barry Yates] It’s good to see your face!
[John McCarthy] “Yeah, it’s been a while.”
[Barry Yates] You don’t look any different.
[John McCarthy] “Yep, still fat. [laughs] Never trust a skinny chef, right Barry?”
[Barry Yates] Yes, that’s right. [laughs]. Did you have a chance to look at our other Operator Corner posts?
[John McCarthy] “Yes. It’s fascinating to me because I was using your products back in 2008. I guess that would have been the first time. And we had CVaps in The Crimson Sparrow from day one, from 2012 until we closed it in 2019. We had three different ones at one point. We had what I think you called the Silver Edition, which was the box. That was our workhorse. And then we’d gotten another one that was really industrial, that I think was primarily a school version. And then we also got one of your prototype counter models.”
[Barry Yates] Yeah, the Pod.
[John McCarthy] “Yeah, we tried to use that from time to time. It was more of an experiment. We liked the size of that one [laughs]. My point is, looking at the models now, it looks like they are Ferraris compared to what they used to be. I feel like I used dad’s ’56 Thunderbird. Which isn’t bad. They were phenomenal. I could expand upon it all. It’s amazing to see where you are now, you know. In terms of functionality, I’m sure, is much much better. They also look sleek and really well designed. I just wanted to say that out front.”
The Crimson Sparrow
[Barry Yates] I loved The Crimson Sparrow in Hudson. What kind of building was that before you got it?
[John McCarthy] “It was about 150, 160 years old. Initially it was a house. Then off the back side of it, up where my office was, there was another entryway into the building. It was primarily a horse carriage repair shop. There was a pulley system. They would pull the carriages up and work on them up in the top. And then, at the turn of the last century, it became a bakery. We actually had the sign, and some of the script, the coins. It was called Rose’s Bakery. And in fact, one of our rooms was basically built out of the oven. Then it became a Maytag repair shop for a while. And then it was an antique dealer’s house and showroom. Finally we took it. But it was actually two buildings. One side was all The Crimson Sparrow, with living quarters above it. And the other side we leased out. I sold them all in 2019.”
[Barry Yates] One part of the building was a full, open kitchen. Had huge glass, that sat behind the actual restaurant. There was a courtyard in between the restaurant and the kitchen. I can’t tell you how cool it was to sit in that courtyard and watch everything that was going on in that kitchen.
[John McCarthy] “The windows were 18 feet wide by six feet tall. That actually was the garage. The cool thing about that garage, and why we decided to put the kitchen there, was that we found that the garage had drainage in the floor directly out into the street and city sewer. And we were like “wow, we could put a kitchen in here and just hose down the floor every night.” It turned out that portion of the property, that garage, was ceded to 746, which was the address for our building, from the building next door. On the corner. The reason there were drains in the floor was that the building next door used to be an Edsel and Packard dealership. That’s where they would pull the cars around and wash them. We got really lucky with that. We built the kitchen in there, a full galley kitchen, with Jade ranges and the CVaps, all stainless. Big stainless hood. And on the roof, we actually put an herb garden and produce garden.”
[Barry Yates] It was one of my favorite restaurants, outside of the fact that it was your food, it was just totally cool. It was right in downtown Hudson, historic Hudson. It was just cool.
[John McCarthy] “It was fun while it lasted.”
[Barry Yates] I had some of my most memorable meals there. I hate that it’s not there so I could go to it again.
[John McCarthy] “That’s where I met Mr. Winston [Shelton].”
[Barry Yates] Yeah, it is! I got Winston there once, didn’t I?
[John McCarthy] “Right on.”
[Barry Yates] Let’s go from the start. Give us a little bit about you. How you became a chef. You were originally a lawyer, right? In Manhattan. How did you go from lawyer to chef?
[John McCarthy] “I always worked in restaurants when I was younger. And I wanted to pursue that. When you’re young, you listen to what your parents suggest. So, I didn’t go to culinary school. Instead, I went to college. Even going to college, I cooked and worked and dabbled in it. Came home for breaks and was back in restaurants again. When I graduated from college in 1989, the economy wasn’t great. It was a nightmare.”
“For a year or two after that, the economy was horrible. People didn’t get the greatest jobs coming out of college. I actually worked for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for a while. And then I said, “if you can’t get a great job, you might as well get more schooling.” That was the attitude then. And the government’s always willing to loan you more money to go to college. So, I went to law school. And following that, I got a clerkship to be a clerk for the United States Court of Appeals Judge for the Third Circuit. I did that for a year. Got recruited out of that to go to Tennessee.”
“You know how it goes, things that sort of roll along. And you get into this golden handcuff kind of situation where you move, you make more. As I was doing it, with every step I took, I became more and more miserable. I did not enjoy being a lawyer. But I did it for a long time.”
Transitioning From Law to Food
[John McCarthy] “At one point, my wife and I were walking in downtown Soho and passed the French Culinary Institute, and she suggested that I take some amateur courses. I took a 12-week course. About four weeks in, one of the instructors came to me and said “you know, if you ever want to do this professionally, you should do it.” I thought “yeah, where were you about 15 years ago?” And then, slowly I started talking to my wife, and I decided okay, I will enroll as a full-time student. So, I enrolled in the professional course and graduated top of the class. Got some great mentoring out of people there. Met Dave Arnold while I was there. I was interning while I was working as a lawyer, going to school, and interning for Dave. And Dave said “hey man, this is just school. I’m going to introduce you to my brother-in-law. You should work there.” And that was Wylie Dufresne.”
“So I started working at wd~50. I was working while going to school. After graduating, I went to work at wd~50. Was there for five or six years. And then I purchased the buildings upstate in Hudson, because I had a house up here. I thought “man, wouldn’t it be cool to actually own a restaurant where you had an asset.” As opposed to in New York, where you pour a million and a half dollars into the property that basically just makes it a more valuable property for the landlord. And after seven years, you’re starting to get humped for an 80% rent raise. I was thinking about that the whole time.”
Asset vs. Lease
[Barry Yates] That’s something that we haven’t touched on. Give a little more insight into what you just said. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I learned early in my career. Talk about asset versus lease, and what it means in New York City.
[John McCarthy] “Sure. Even before the pandemic and the lockdowns, we were seeing a tremendous flight of younger, talented cooks and chefs leaving New York City. It wasn’t for want of venture capital to invest in restaurant creation. They were looking for the stability of a restaurant. You can go back to your home in Washington, Minnesota, or Indiana. And just because you leave New York City doesn’t mean that you suddenly forget how to cook fine dining or innovative food. You need to be sensitive, obviously, to the market that’s there. I think that New York, Chicago, and Los Angles are a bit more receptive to it because you’ve got a larger group of people who are into cultural activities, and there’s a vibe movement afoot.”
“But say a young 30-something chef decides he or she wants to open a restaurant. Say a 1000-square-foot restaurant. You’re looking at rent somewhere around 17 to 19 thousand dollars a month. You add on the insurances, you add on the city…we’ll call it a regressive tax, the DOH inspections; the fines; the compliance. You’re looking at a nut that is incredibly huge. Throw in the fact that a liquor license in the city will cost you…lawyers and everything else…around fifty to sixty thousand dollars. Not to mention appearances before the community boards, and fighting with the SLA [State Liquor Authority]. So, your initial investment – build-out, furniture, we’ll call them the tangentials – you’re looking at a million dollars, minimum. And even more, if it’s a new build-out, not an existing restaurant space.”
“Now there are spaces where you can get away with things that are cheaper. But when you’re paying almost $20,000 in your required three months’ rent, first, and security, and then the first and last. There’s a hundred grand out of your pocket.”
Chefs Are Leaving Big Cities
[John McCarthy] “Maybe it was the lawyer esthetic in my head. I thought, if we’re going to do this, taking into account the failure rate of restaurants, we want to have some kind of parachute should it not work. Even if it does work – say for seven or eight years like The Crimson Sparrow – at the end of the experience, you have an asset that’s increased in value. So, we looked in a 25-mile radius of my house upstate, probably at 40 or 50 properties. We settled on one in Hudson. And by the grace of God and good old capitalist greed, the building increased in value almost 75 percent when we sold. We also had all the things that were in the facility that we sold to the next buyer as well. But that allowed us, if you take into account the yearly depreciation, the write-offs for taxes, salaries pulled from the property, and then you’re able to lump a big sum on your four or five investors and get them, if not whole, even a little bit more. It’s a zero-sum game with other people’s money. So, we did very well. And it’s a model that is becoming much more popular as these urban centers become much, much more difficult.”
“Until the larger metropolitan areas start viewing restaurants as an asset to draw tourists and income, instead of a revenue source for fines and levees, and things like that, I think there’s going to be a continued preference for places that aren’t eight, ten million people. Maybe I discussed it with you or Mr. Winston, the great chefs in Kentucky. Ed Lee is down there. You don’t need to be in a large urban center to be a success.”
“I don’t know if we were rationalizing it, but we were doing a lot of research. If you look at the number of franchises that are in the U.S. that are not located in any of the big northeastern cities and that are multi-million-dollar operations, it brings you to the conclusion that it’s not a path of least resistance. It’s not a fear of doing business in New York. It is simply financial. Couple that with a lot of these younger chefs that were leaving even before the pandemic. It’s also a lifestyle change. They can go back to where they grew up. Go back to a community that they know. And they can give back to that community the things they’ve learned in NYC, LA, and Chicago. And be very happy with cooking, making money, serving their community, and being part of that again.”
New York City and the Rent Crisis
[John McCarthy] “I think New York is a wonderful place. But I think it’s gonna go through a decade of very, very difficult times. I think there is something to be said for finding first peace in place, and then pursuing what you want to do. Just because you live in Peoria, Illinois doesn’t mean you can’t fly to Japan, and go to Spain and bring back what you’ve learned. There used to be an obsession to be in New York or Chicago or LA, or even Atlanta. I think that has passed, at least from what I’m seeing. There’s still a desire to be in New York. But again, if you’re not in that pipeline of available capital it will be incredibly difficult.”
“I’m an adviser to the New York Japanese Restaurant Association, run by some very experienced and well-known Japanese restaurateurs. We set it up as a 501C6, which allows us to do lobbying and other activities. One of the main things that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic and lockout was the difficulty the restaurants were having in paying their rent. And in fact, it’s only gotten worse. “
“The last survey from the New York City Hospitality Alliance showed that almost 70% of restaurateurs are not meeting their rent. Now the difficulty comes in looking at it from a business perspective. The landlords are, almost to a person, unwilling to negotiate, renegotiate, or give breaks on rent. Now there are anecdotal examples of landlords slashing rent, or putting it on the back end of the term of lease, or taking up to ten percent of your gross sales, which is the limit under the state liquor authority. But almost across the board, the landlords have not budged. Which means that someone that’s paying $15,000 a month for rent is trying to make that nut solely on delivery, takeout, and only for the last month – 25% capacity. Evidence would suggest that’s nearly impossibility, if not a complete impossibility.”
“The reason for that, if you want to have a discussion about the economic pipeline, is that the state and city have done zero to alleviate the property tax burden on landlords. Couple that with the fact that Morgan Chase and other banks that hold mortgages on these properties want their cut as well. And there’s been no relief on the mortgages. So, everything rolls downhill, from a lack of action by Congress on the Restaurants Act, any direct help to landlords and restaurants. So, as it continues to flow down, everyone’s looking to the last man standing, who is unfortunately the restaurant operator.”
[Barry Yates] And the one with the least capital.
[John McCarthy] “There’s no capital. And as they’re all standing on the shoulders of each other, the one getting crushed is the restaurant operator. And until there is a come to Jesus moment and landlords say “we understand you have no income. You can’t service your rent, which then means we can’t service our property tax burden or pay the bank. Therefore we’re gonna go into default.”
“I’m not saying all landlords are that way. There are some multi-billion-dollar real estate conglomerates. We’re talking about a lot of the smaller buildings in what most people would consider the quaint areas of, say, Manhattan – brownstones. Those are typically somebody that’s had a building in their family. They may rely on one or two buildings to actually be their income. But there’s been nothing to adjust it.”
“So, as we come through the pandemic, we’re hoping that restaurants will soon be able to open up. I don’t think the rent is going to adjust. So even though this may have been an optimum time for rent to readjust itself in a downward fashion that would hopefully, after a travesty like this, result in the promotion of more entrepreneurial activity due to the availability of property and the access allowed by lower pricing. It seems to have passed us by. That’s my, well…near illiterate economic view of what’s happening. But the realities are there.”
[Barry Yates] I think that’s a pretty good observation. I’m glad you shared that with us, so we can share it.
[John McCarthy] “This is based solely on my interaction with existing restaurant operators who are hoping to pull out of this and stay in there. One of the bigger things to come out of this that’s going to affect the entire restaurant industry is the actions of the insurance companies. Most insurance policies did not include business interruption coverage, or if they did it had to be physical damage to a building. There is a legion of lawsuits out there trying to get business interruption coverage. But I will tell you, we’ve been in this cycle for almost ten months now. This means that on a year-to-year basis, the new insurance policies are going to contain the most onerous and heinous exceptions to viral, bacterial, and other food and airborne diseases. And a big concern is that these policies are so restrictive that they’re actually removing the policies’ foodborne illnesses from coverage. So, restaurant operators are very aware of what the impact of COVID is.”
“There is going to be a ripple through this industry on so many levels. Not to mention the fact that insurance rates are going to skyrocket. Just a typical response of the insurance industry. But these are things that we’re dealing with on a micro and macro level at the New York Japanese Restaurant Association, in conjunction with another great group called the New York City Hospitality Alliance, who really take the point on a lot of these issues. But that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to help these restaurant operators deal with the day-to-day issues that come up, in terms of restrictions, regulations, and lockdowns. But also trying to anticipate what business considerations they need to take into the equation to ensure that they’re gonna make money.”
[Barry Yates] So, based on your experience with the associations in New York, and knowing that these ripples are not just in New York, it’s across our whole industry, right? Are you aware of any super PAC or hospitality associations that are going to say, ‘we’re one of the largest employers, as an industry.’ Do you see anything coming in the works that are going to get better representation for independent operators?
[John McCarthy] “The National Restaurant Association is one of the largest groups out there. The New York City Hospitality Alliance is another great. We have another New York State Restaurant Association. There are a lot of associations. I think the difficulty they are all having, and that we have all had, is that there is a logjam in Congress. And when one side is fighting for a billion dollars and another one is fighting for 1.6 billion dollars, for some reason they can’t come up with a solution. Only those who are truly in need and vulnerable are held hostage. And if we look at what’s going on today, there is slim to no chance that that’s ever going to be addressed unless there is a concerted effort to take care of the restaurants. “
“Now the actions of the mayors and governors in New York, Massachusetts, and California should highlight the situation that these restaurant operators and workers really need now. Hopefully, someone is going to take notice. There is some hope for the restaurant operators. I think if you look at how…I’m not going to say it was shortsighted…how optimistic the PPP program was. That provided loans to restaurant operators. It allowed up to 20 percent of it to be used for something other than salaries. But if you applied back in March or April, that money has already been expended. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a second round of the PPP. That program is basically extinguished. So, we were optimistic in March. We’d get through the summer on PPP money, and be back up and kicking forlate summer or early fall. It just didn’t work out that way. So, we’re in a situation where there’s no money in the pipeline to help these businesses and operators. It’s really an abject failure of everyone involved – President, Congress, whoever you want to blame, that there’s not been a view to helping one of the largest small business sectors in the country.”
[Barry Yates] That brings me to two more questions. What can we do to help out? And let’s just assume that something is done that gets our industry back on track. What does it look like when we’re back really operating and open?
[John McCarthy] “So, a couple of things. One, I would urge everyone to contact their reps or senators and push the National Restaurants Act. This needs to be done ASAP. Number two, I’m a bit cynical about it, because I think my lawyer mind kicks in. Even if the restaurant operators and workers were to get money through the restaurants act, you have a group of mayors that is arbitrarily and without constitutional authority locking down businesses, telling them they cannot operate. So, if you give these businesses money but you tell them they can’t open, you’re essentially perpetuating pain. “
Restaurants Are Singled Out in the Pandemic
[John McCarthy] “I’ll point out that in New York City, restaurants seem to be the low-hanging fruit of resolution. When there’s an uptick, all of a sudden it must be restaurants. Let’s shut them down or restrict their capacity. In New York, there is a very public demand for data. Because as of yet, we’ve been shown no data that transmission is caused or is rampant coming out of restaurants. In fact, to the contrary, restaurants are conducting business in a way that’s probably the safest out there. Meaning Plexiglas, ventilation systems, air circulation, measures that were taken, people wearing PPE all the time during the interaction. So, there is absolutely no evidence that the restaurants are the cause (meaning that you have to shut them down). “
“Now I’ll point out that in Boston they’ve actually got the data. Boston has shown that point four, point four – less than half a percent of the transmissions identified came out of restaurants. Yet they’re not allowed to operate. In California you have a governor shutting down outdoor dining. If I can’t even bring the outdoors…I’m not sure what’s left for me. A judge in California has just shot down that edict. “
“The problem we’re seeing and, the problem you’re having…this comes from my lawyer brain…is that if this were a law passed by the New York Assembly, or by the House or Senate, groups out of the states, you could challenge it as an unlawful law. I don’t wanna get too political. But these edicts and fiats by mayors that seem to change every two or three weeks leave you with no judicial recourse in an appropriately time-sensitive and exigent fashion to get yourself open. “
“I’ll point out anecdotally Governor Cuomo shut down churches in New York. The Catholic Diocese appealed to the Supreme Court and won. Cuomo dismissed it as irrelevan, because he said that at the time the church was in an orange zone, and now they’re in a yellow zone. So, the facts don’t apply. So, we’re left with these governors and mayors doing what they wish without constitutional recourse. It’s been a very frustrating experience for those people that want to challenge authority, but there’s nothing to challenge because it’s being done in a very cavalier fashion.”
“Sorry for the diatribe. I think what we’re left with is hoping that there is going to be money put on the table for restaurant operators and workers Not to be too cynical but we’re entering winter in the Northeast. We’re looking at flu. And we’re looking at any other any other number of contagions. It’s not likely that we’ll see the light of day until spring again. They’ve extended outdoor dining in New York. But I’ll tell you that their restrictions on seating capacity, heating, which heat lamps and propane you can or can’t use. It’s onerous. If it snows more than 12 inches all of these restaurants are required to break down all of their outdoor setups and semi-permanent structures, move them inside, let them plow, and then move them back out. I’m not sure that there’s going to be a stampede rush to a three-quarter paneled in the street in February when it’s 4°F outside. What we’re facing is a very very difficult situation, speaking as a New Yorker. We don’t have the conditions for outdoor dining that say LA or Dallas, or San Antonio have. We are in a completely different situation. Frankly, I’ll just say, we need help. We need help in a big way.”
“Here’s where the restaurant operators get frustrated. For example, Governor Cuomo several weeks ago, said “we’ve seen an uptick. So, what we’re gonna do is put a curfew on indoor dining at ten o’clock,” meaning a couple of things. One – is this a suggestion that the virus only attacks people at 10:01? The other thing that he did was require people to be moved out of the restaurant. Well, guess where they’re going? They’re going to probably what is considered illegal gatherings, either in apartments or other spaces. Couple that with the fact that he also stopped to-go and delivery of alcohol after ten o’clock. I do not understand that one. If you’re looking for people to go home, if I can take a bottle with me and finish my conversation with my dinner guests in my apartment with a bottle of booze, so much the better. “
“They’re making these rules up without any justification or rationale. In New York, if you’re going to put a curfew on a restaurant at ten o’clock, and they don’t usually open until six, well guess what? More people are going to show up at the restaurant between six and nine. To get their eat on. This is where we get into this circular kind of frustration. We, as a restaurant group and as a restaurant community are trying to abide as best we can. I guess it’s the one opportunity we have to be part of the collective to get through it. But whatever they’re doing doesn’t seem to be working in terms of the overall infection rate. So we’re left with trying to hold as best we can.”
[Barry Yates] I hear the frustration. I feel it.
Japanese Culture and Cuisine
[Barry Yates] Let’s switch gears. I know about your passion for Japanese culture. Tell us a little bit about it. Not only related to food, but in general.
[John McCarthy] “I lived in Asia when I was a younger guy. I was in South Korea for three and a half years. We traveled pretty extensively through Asia. Japan is one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. As I look back, those experiences had a huge impact on me, because it was when I was 13…14 until I was almost 16…17 years old. It’s during that time when you really start appreciating food. Your impressions of what food you like really kind of take hold. I’ll point out that at that time, in the early 1980s, they didn’t have McDonald’s in South Korea. So, I didn’t eat at McDonald’s for years. The first time I got to eat it was on the Ginza in Tokyo. I remember, I think it might be one of the first stops, like look man, it’s been a year or two, like we need to get down with a Big Mac.”
“You start to appreciate in a very different way living within that culture. What you like and don’t like. It was a very interesting experience. I took away from that a deep appreciation for the food cultures of Asia. So, when I started cooking professionally, I sort of fell in with a lot of the elements that I really appreciated about Asia. They started making their way into my cooking.”
“The first year we had The Crimson Sparrow, we decided to take a couple of weeks off. So, I decided to go to a Japanese friend, a Michelin-starred sushi chef, and ask him if he would let me work in his New York kitchen for a couple of weeks. Funny story…I asked him during dinner. He just looked at me and said ‘no.’ I was like, ‘well, that’s kind of a bummer.’ He went downstairs, and came back about 20 minutes later. He said ‘look, I don’t want you working here. I’m gonna send you to Japan to work with my master. Let’s get drunk.’”
“So yeah, went to Tokyo to work in his master’s restaurant, for about four weeks. Lived with one of the sushi chefs. I’ll tell you, one month of doing that routine really gives you an appreciation for how hard it is on sushi chefs in Japan. The experience of getting up at four in the morning, going with the chef to Tsukiji market, buying fresh fish, coming back, and butchering on a line with all the other chefs. Eating breakfast with them. Then getting ready for lunch service. Taking a one-hour nap, then coming back for dinner service. Wiping the whole place down, having some drinks, getting up four hours later. I mean, you do that six days a week, it is a brutal existence. But it’s incredibly eye-opening. You build on things. We were able to do pretty much anything we wanted to do at The Crimson Sparrow. The menu became more Japanese ingredient-driven. It wasn’t traditional Japanese.”
[Barry Yates] One of my favorite dishes that you served me was a charred carrot dish. What was that? Where did it come from?
[John McCarthy] “At the time we were cooking a lot of pork belly. We would have a lot of pork fat left. So, we were trying to make the carrot taste like a barbecued hot dog. We would cook them, and then we would hard char them. Then we dehydrated them for about four hours. We would put them in a bag with pork fat, vacuum seal it, and cook it a little bit more. It would rehydrate. And then we would obviously serve. I think we served that with a yeasty sauce because it was supposed to be like the roll. That was an involved process. It was quite a few steps. A couple of people were like ‘hey, why’d you ruin this carrot by vacuum sealing it with pork fat?’ I thought ‘this person will never be my friend.'”
“We tried to do different things. The Crimson Sparrow was interesting on several levels in Columbia County, New York. We were the first to have a HACCP license. And we were also one of the first restaurants that Open Table took a keen interest in. I think there are 75 or 125 restaurants now on Open Table in Columbia County. There are a lot of forward-leaning, pioneering things. It’s never easy being the first. The second usually has an easier go of it. Just ask the Donner Party, right? If you’re the first you’re going to put up with a lot of, not frustration, but heavy lifting. But we were able to do things like that.”
CVap Helps Replace Cooks
[John McCarthy] “Getting back to how CVap worked in those early days. When we opened, we had six cooks in the kitchen. Slowly, with attrition, we were down to four, maybe three cooks. Basically, we were readjusting the manner in which we were preparing and serving food, and altering the menu design. We were doing ala carte dining. And then about nine months in, we said “let’s put up a tasting menu.” Because frankly, people didn’t know how to order off ala carte. Maybe that was my fault. But we put up a tasting menu. The first weekend we did 150 covers. About 148 ordered the tasting menu. We kind of looked at each other and said ‘well, we’re a tasting menu restaurant.’”
“We were offering two different levels of tasting menus, one was shorter. The other was longer and had more ingredients. Obviously, the longer was more expensive. Incorporated some things like truffles and foi gras. As we lost a cook, we would just change the manner of preparation. CVap was a big part of that. Because at some point, if you’re pulling two or three dishes off the fish station or meat station, you no longer need a second cook. You just adjust your preparation to use the CVap to fill the cook’s position. So, it actually got down to three cooks. Meat, fish, and a pastry chef. And each of us would rotate, take care of various amuse-bouche. We’d alternate by week, or two weeks, and would take on the pastry when we lost the pastry chef. At one point it was me and one other cook. We did that for almost a year, serving a sometimes 13-course tasting menu. We were able to do it. And it’s primarily due to the way that we were preparing, serving, cooking, holding, and being able to get food out in a very timely fashion. I think I told you that before, CVap was critical.”
[Barry Yates] You told me you absolutely credit CVap for being able to do this.
[John McCarthy] “I think I brought you and Mr. Winston back, and I said ‘look, it’s me, Matt, and see that CVap? It’s named Bob.’”
[Barry Yates] So, what about CVap do you think allowed you to do that?
[John McCarthy] “Well, we were serving food that was very appealing visually. Also, incredibly delicious. We approached it from the perspective of – if I can have one cook prepare the garnish for the dish, the protein can go into the CVap for a set period of time. Just hold it there. Then I don’t need to worry about the second or third pan on the pickup. And if you’re able to do that, you’ve now freed yourself to take care of one, two, maybe three other dishes that need to go out in the course of the service, to set up again that particular course.”
“And that’s the way we ran that restaurant for several years. It’s somewhat difficult because you’ve got to make sure if you’re using it for several applications, whatever setting you’re using that CVap for, that it’s going to apply to both. Otherwise, you’re going to have a wall of CVaps. That may work for the Culinary Institute of America, but we’re a restaurant. We were able to do it successfully.”
[Barry Yates] Throughout your career as a chef, who were your mentors?
[John McCarthy] “Well, in terms of CVap, it was always a fascinating machine. When we got to The Crimson Sparrow I ran into Tony Martino. Between you and Tony, that’s where we got most of our knowledge and information about the CVap. We were very fascinated by it. We didn’t want to spend $25,000 for a combi oven. And we thought this was a better application for what we wanted to do anyway. You and Tony were incredibly generous with your time. And you also had a great deal of information about recipes and cooking. But I remember a lot of the recipes we were given were really large industrial kind of school menus. We had to extrapolate a little bit. Do a little experimentation. We also had the HACCP license. So things that we could do, like sous vide, we could also do in the CVap oven.”
“So, it was you and Tony and the folks right there. Because I didn’t know a lot of people who used them. We’d been open five or six years when I went to one of the Star Chefs. There was a whole presentation about CVap. People were like ‘wow, this sounds great! Where do you get it?’ It was a situation where there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there for standalone restaurants that were interested in the technology. It was a different application that was driving Winston at that point.”
“Now you have all these chefs and people talking about how they use it. The best application for it. There’s much more information. So, I think in terms of trying to proffer to a younger chef or a restaurant owner ‘hey you ought to look into this machine.’ There’s a lot more available information to actually see it being done. I think we did a video in the early, early days of Crimson Sparrow about how we used the CVap cooking octopus. We did an octopus dish. I think it was a kimchi romesco. But those are the types of things that we were learning, along with running the restaurant.”
[Barry Yates] We were learning from you as well. Because I’d been using it for years, and doing all types of cooking with it myself. But the focus of Winston’s business really was chains. And school and institutional cooking. So, when we started working with you, we saw things we’d not seen before. Because the things you were doing with it hadn’t been done before. And all of a sudden it’s like there was an explosion. Now there’s no serious chef that doesn’t know what CVap is and what they can do with it.
[John McCarthy] “Exactly. It’s incredible how it’s become part of the equipment lexicon in restaurants. I just wanna make sure you understand…we did really screw some things up. We got one of the early model retherm ovens. I remember we tried to put pheasant in it. We made the best pheasant jerky you can imagine. I mean, there was no rule book. I don’t know that Mary Monroe High School in Bel Air, Maryland is cooking pheasant for the kids.”
“So, we were trying to learn with you guys. And that was the whole point of the exchanges. We found that one of the coolest applications was for our pastry program; muffins, and cakes. Man, it was magic and incredibly easy and almost fail-safe. Unless in the last ten minutes of cooking you got drunk and slipped into a three-hour nap and woke up. You couldn’t screw it up. It was really, really a great application for it.”
[Barry Yates] I know you did a lot with custards and eggs well.
[John McCarthy] “We were doing a lot of things in the CVap. Particularly fish, salmon. It made a fine dining restaurant’s preparation of salmon completely easy. There were no overcooked. It came out perfectly warmed in the center, pink and unctuous and delicious. Not only did I save on labor costs. I didn’t even have to teach someone out of culinary school or a restaurant ‘hey look, don’t hammer the salmon!’ It made life much easier.”
Talking Sake and Fish
[Barry Yates] What is your favorite fish, and why? And what’s the secret to good sake?
[John McCarthy] “Ah, sake. So, in terms of fish, I eat an extraordinary amount of fish. I’ll tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like salmon. It’s too oily, I just don’t like it. Orange and red meat fish, I’m not a fan. I prefer things that have crispy skins, like sebring. My other favorites are things like clams, squid, and octopus. I’m a big fan of that texture. It’s got a good chew to it. I prefer that, or like a shellfish.”
“In terms of sake. We had an extensive sake menu at The Crimson Sparrow, and later at Oka, and a couple of other restaurants. But sake is another one of those things. It’s incredibly delicious. Incredibly fascinating cultural aspect of Japanese cuisine and dining and izakaya culture as well. But it’s really up to the taste of the drinker. There are sakes that are inherently light. Maybe a bit sweet. There are ones that are really pricey. And then some that are very bold, very forward in their flavors. You have floral types, and you have aged sake. There’s a myriad of different types of sake.”
“If you were to pin me down and say, “what is your favorite sake?” My flavor usually tends toward Junmai Ginjo. Junmai is a rice brew. It has no added alcohol to it. And then the ginjo, indicating the polish rate, which is less than 60% remaining after they’ve polished the rice. I find those to be a nice balance of rice, florality, also mouthfeel. It’s really delicious.”
Sake Reduces Wine Waste
“We were doing beverage programs at The Crimson Sparrow that incorporate sake. It was another one of those situations where in the beginning we were offering a full wine pairing, and we found that incorporating sake added a different adventuresome element that diners seem to really appreciate. I will tell you one of the benefits of serving sake as part of your beverage program. The waste rate on typical wine is horrendous. You open a bottle of wine, you go through it, then you have to open one more bottle to get through the service. And a day or so later you have to dump it. Or use it for some application in the kitchen. Whereas with sake, the shelf life is long. In a successful ongoing restaurant operation, you should have zero sake waste. So, if you look at it from the perspective of 50 percent of your beverage drains are sake, you hopefully cut down on your wastage, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. We loved that aspect of it. More, we appreciated the fact that sake has what wine will never have, which is elements of umami that help the whole experience, and helps the dining experience.”
Reducing Labor and Space with CVap
[John McCarthy] “You were asking me about restaurants in New York. The startup of a restaurant in New York is incredibly expensive. One thing that I was thinking about, even before the pandemic, is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for restaurants to recruit cooks. For whatever reason. People don’t want to be in the kitchen. Don’t want to cook. Don’t want to put in the hours. Find that there’s more money out front of house. Whatever the case is.”
“So, before the pandemic, and for a while, I have been bouncing the idea of a restaurant that would incorporate one, two, three different CVaps. It would allow a kitchen to be run on a skeleton crew. Because there are aspects of CVap that provide other cost savings. Namely, it doesn’t need to be hooded. So, if you’re looking at the construction of a restaurant, and you’re looking at a ten-foot hood, you’re looking at a hood that’s incredibly expensive. However, if you’ve got elements of your equipment, namely a CVap, that can then be slid under a counter and have more workable space, you can now have a five or six-foot hood. You have just cut the major cost in your kitchen design in half. It also takes care of the labor issue, to an extent, in that you’ve got a unit that can not only on a large format basis prepare the food, it can serve to hold things or reheat things that you can make for an easy pick up.”
“Those are the things that as we were looking at spaces in New York, we were looking to design smaller spaces with heavy influence or heavy intention on the sake and shōchū beverage end of it. And then saving money on the kitchen operation by eliminating the need for six chefs or five cooks and a dishwasher. We were looking at an operation that could be run by one or two people.”
“The thing that I would recommend to anyone is look into the CVap because of the variety of applications, both from browning, searing, capacity, poaching capacity, steaming…it goes on and on and on. As opposed to “I gotta have this conventional convection oven, I’ve gotta have this whole line.” You can replace a whole line in one piece of equipment.”
“As we come out of the pandemic, I think we’re going to see a reversion back to smaller restaurants. I think the days of the 400-seat meat packing bazaar are gone. Because if this revisits us, you’re back to 50-person capacity in a 400-seat food hall. I think we’re going to see a return to airier, lighter, smaller spaces that can absorb an impact. If that’s the case, then chefs and operators really need to readjust their thinking to how they can save on equipment, but also labor. The way that they need to smartly do that is to consider multi-application machines like CVap. That is the way that you get around a lot of these issues. It’s going to take a corresponding adjustment, sort of a re-calculation of how they prepare food. What food they prepare. Find innovative ways to simulate or achieve the same textures and flavors they did before with other applications.”
“But that’s where we’re gonna be post-pandemic. I think that’s one of the important things, in a city like New York, particularly, the multiple application uses of a machine that basically slides under your counter and quietly does the work that two cooks could do.”
[Barry Yates] Man, I couldn’t have asked for a better advertisement there!
[John McCarthy] “I looked at three different spaces and basically, we were lining them out to be CVap kitchens. It would have been fun. We’ll see what post-pandemic holds.”
Chef and Artist
[Barry Yates] A lot of people don’t know this, but you’re a pretty well-known artist. Tell us about that.
[John McCarthy] “A lot of people know me. I don’t think they know me as an artist. I started painting a couple of years ago. You know you find things in life that you really, really enjoy doing. And that’s one of ’em. I paint every single day. I have had a great sort of mentor guiding me through and giving me the encouragement that I think I needed. His name is Paul Hunter, he’s an incredible artist. He is very, very well known.”
“I’ve sold some paintings. Just recently I’ve been picked up by a very large Japanese gallery in Tokyo. Also, a couple of other opportunities have popped up. So, things you force in life usually end up not working out, things that you pursue because you enjoy them, and you find to be a healthy outlet usually lead to things that are beneficial or opportunities that you really never knew existed. Or you never imagined taking advantage of.”
“So right now, I’m just really enjoying it. Let’s face it, outside of trying to help people through very difficult times, it’s a way to decompress. Kind of forget about all the nonsense that is going on. But also the hope that it will lead to something financially beneficial and also make my life a little bit better. I really enjoy it. If you want to check it all out it’s on Instagram at @Sparrow_Suzume_art.”
[John McCarthy] “You just gotta go with the flow. Particularly nowadays. People say, ‘oh, you’re doing this consulting, you’re taking money from people that really don’t have it.’ I’m not crazy about it myself. But a lot of my consulting is well below market average. In many cases, it’s free. It’s the idea that we’ve got to get together and help each other and get people through this. It’s not to take advantage of them. And not to parasitically benefit from their trying times.”
“And what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to save an industry, and people within it who have set up their life around this. In some cases, generationally. These people need our help. It’s incredibly difficult to hear these stories. You think I’m frustrated. Thankfully, when this broke, I had just gotten out of my last restaurant deal. So I don’t have a restaurant right now.”
[Barry Yates] I’ve got that figured out, and it’s in the future, and it’s in Louisville. It’s a sake bar – art gallery. Maybe a sake and bourbon bar or something.
[John McCarthy] “Throw some shōchū in there too, some of the barrel-aged shōchū. It tastes like bourbon.”
“My encouragement would be…there is something to be said for helping other people. And if you own a restaurant and you’re floundering, and you don’t know what to do, ask another restaurant owner. Ask someone for help. I mean, call me if you want. But also, if you’re holding water if you’re doing well, help your neighbor. If you know someone who’s in trouble, someone in dire straits or on the skids, call them, reach out to them. Nobody in this industry should be left alone at this point. Not only from the perspective of financial health and business health. We also need to take care of people’s mental health. There was mental health and addiction in the industry long before the pandemic. I can almost virtually assure you 101 percent that it hasn’t gotten better during the pandemic.”
“So, people really need to take care of each other, to help each other, and need to offer. You know, sometimes we want to tear down the competition, beat the competition. There’s no competition anymore. This is six people in a floundering boat. We need all pails on deck, and people really need to help. If you’re not helping, you’re part of the problem.”
[Barry Yates] What a beautiful message to end this on. John, I appreciate your friendship and your time.
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